LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations,
and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals
of Transfer Success: Rethinking Transfer Evaluation
Senior Institutional Researcher
Thomas Nelson Community College
Colleges serve a legacy function in the preparation and transfer
of students from 2-year institutions to the university. About a
century ago, the first public junior college introduced itself into
higher education. It was designed specifically to prepare students
for a baccalaureate degree by offering the first two years and then
having students transfer to a four-year college. Since that time,
junior colleges have evolved into comprehensive community colleges,
adding terminal certificates and associate degrees designed to prepare
students for entry into the workforce as well as transfer. Similarly,
former vocational and technical institutes have added college transfer
curricula to their program mix. Although the evolution of the comprehensive
community colleges has increased students' options in higher education,
it also has complicated the evaluation of how well these colleges
prepare students for transfer. By definition, community colleges
respond to the needs of the local community. The transfer function
may take a peripheral role compared to workforce training and economic
development (Clowes and Levin, 1989). In fact, this summer Johnson
County Community College and Oakton Community College hosted a conference
entitled College Transfer: The Forgotten Function of Community Colleges.
With research showing that nationally 42 percent of the students
attending public community colleges intend to earn a bachelor's
degree (Phillippe, 2000), why isn't transfer preparation a more
prominent element in the community college's mission? The primary
reason, according to some critics, is that community colleges do
not do a good job of preparing students for transfer (e.g., Bernstein,
1986; Brint and Karabel, 1989). Carefully conducted research matching
students entering community colleges with those entering four-year
colleges shows that students who choose to begin at a four-year
college are more likely to complete the bachelor's degree (Pascarella
and Terenzini, 1991). Researchers over the years (e.g., Keeley and
House, 1993) also have documented such phenomena as "transfer shock,"
a predictable drop in grade point average experienced by community
college students during the first semester of transfer. While decades
of transfer research have fueled the controversy about the community
college's role in higher education, they have created no mandate
for change nor widespread improvement efforts. The reason is simple-the
typical research paradigm used to evaluate transfer does not provide
information that colleges can use to actually improve the process.
Institutions that are serious about articulation need data that
can inform curricular improvement efforts.
Tracking Courses vs. Student Demographics
Over a decade ago, Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) and
Christopher Newport University (CNU) decided that the key to improving
transfer was to have teaching faculty involved from the outset in
designing the research, reviewing results, and recommending changes
based upon the research. With grant funding from the State Council
of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), four faculty members (two
from each college) were enlisted to help design a comprehensive
analysis of transfer. They were to assist research staff in developing
a study to determine important factors that contribute to or inhibit
successful transfer. They also were to conduct follow-up analyses,
including hiring a consultant to interview a sample of students
regarding their transfer experience. The faculty met weekly for
a year. The research offices prepared detailed reports by pulling
transcript information from both college databases on over 1,800
students. TNCC profiled successful and unsuccessful transfer students
to examine differences between the groups using a variety of definitions
of success (e.g., 2.0 GPA, % of successful grades, maintaining GPA),
and performed discriminant and regression analyses to predict success
and GPA. These various analyses produced a number of statistically
significant trends based on such variables as hours completed prior
to transfer, ethnicity, age, and gender. Some of the findings were
surprising, some were disturbing, but none of them suggested corrective
action. For example, the finding that older women performed relatively
better than other groups produced a number of hypotheses and raised
interesting questions. Nevertheless, the faculty members were at
a loss as to how this finding could be used to improve the transfer
prospects of other groups.
The frustration generated by the failure of carefully designed research
to yield action-oriented results led us to re-examine our methodological
assumptions. We realized that the focus of much transfer research
was misplaced. Like virtually all researchers studying transfer,
we had concentrated on students as the unit of analysis. Results
documenting gender and ethnic differences do not help faculty prepare
students more thoroughly. The information is interesting, but it
does not create any incentive to act. It identifies problems, not
solutions. Faculty cannot change students' demographic backgrounds
or make them complete at least 30 hours before transferring. Even
if they find that graduates in their curriculum experience difficulty
when transferring, faculty need more specific information to correct
What is Course-based Tracking?
To bridge this gap between research and action, TNCC and CNU
developed the Course-Based Model of Transfer Success (CBMTS). This
model shifts the paradigm to focus on courses as the unit of analysis,
rather than students. CBMTS provides the information and motivation
faculty need to improve students' preparation. It shows faculty
how students who complete their course perform in subsequent courses
that require their course as a prerequisite. Their students' performance
is compared to that of students who complete the prerequisite at
the four-year college or at other institutions. This pinpoints for
faculty exactly where students experience transfer difficulty. It
also creates a sense of urgency. Faculty can readily agree that
students who pass their course should be prepared for subsequent
courses that require that course as a prerequisite.
CBMTS is a sophisticated tracking model that identifies every course
at a four-year college having a prerequisite that can be met at
the college or at a community college. It produces a grade distribution
for each of those courses that compares performance for students
who completed the prerequisite at the college with the performance
of students who completed the prerequisite at any number of community
colleges (or at other institutions, if specified).
Course-Based Model of Transfer Success and Results
With support from a FIPSE grant, between 1996 and 1998,TNCC
developed and tested a generic version of the program that allows
other colleges to adopt CBMTS. The program has been written and
tested using all 23 community colleges and six universities in Virginia.
The community colleges ranged in size from Eastern Shore Community
College with a fall enrollment of 662 to Northern Virginia Community
College with 35,221 students on five campuses and their Extended
Learning Institute. The six universities varied in size from Christopher
Newport University with fall enrollment of 4,878 to Virginia Tech
with 27,208. Three were urban universities and three were residential.
Their admission criteria covered a wide range of selectivity.
Results from Virginia have been very encouraging and demonstrate
CBMTS's ability to make the task of improving transfer a very manageable
undertaking. First, the data clearly indicate that, in the vast
majority of cases, community college courses provide comparable
preparation. We examined grades in 1,273 courses at six universities,
comparing 38,768 grades for students who completed prerequisites
at one of Virginia's 23 community colleges to 183,365 grades for
students who completed prerequisites at the university. Using productive
grades (A, B, C, P) versus non-productive grades (D, F, W, U) in
the first attempt at the course as the criterion, in only 5.8 percent
of the comparisons did we find students who completed prerequisites
at the university performing significantly better. Students completing
prerequisites at a community college actually outperformed university
prepared in 0.8 percent of the comparisons.
Results such as these demonstrate the usefulness of the CBMTS model
in informing policies and addressing general issues. They provide
a quick and powerful refutation of anecdotal evidence often proffered
to impugn the integrity of community college preparation. In the
vast majority of cases, the higher education system was functioning
The original FIPSE project also clearly demonstrates another major
strength of the CBMTS approach: its ability to transform an intractable
situation such as the "transfer problem" into a set of clearly delineated
opportunities for two colleges to make changes that can improve
students' outcomes. In Virginia, colleges used the idea of "critical
comparisons" to identify problem areas that should be examined first.
They defined these as instances which met the following criteria:
a specific community college had at least five students who completed
the prerequisite for the class and the Fischer Exact Test indicated
that the percentage of those students receiving a nonproductive
grade (defined as D, F, or W) was significantly higher (at p <
.05 ) than that obtained by students who completed the prerequisite
at the university.
Using this definition, ten of the 23 community colleges had no critical
comparisons. Of the remaining 13, only the two largest community
colleges had more than four critical comparisons. Since their data
covered multiple campuses and several of the critical comparisons
involved the same prerequisite course, the workload for any given
campus was still very manageable. The "critical comparison" represents
a high standard because it includes W grades as unsuccessful attempts.
Summary information showed that community college students were
more likely to receive a W grade than were students who did not
attend community colleges. Including W grades as unproductive assumes
that students often use that option to avoid a damaging grade. It
also is reasonable to assume that often W grades reflect more on
these students' life situations rather than reflecting an academic
problem. These situations do not automatically change when the student
transfers, especially when the transfer is as a commuter student
at the local university.
Current Status of CBMTS
With our FIPSE grant we were able to demonstrate the viability of
creating a generic version of the CBMTS software and to show the
model's ability to provide data that lead to improvements. Through
a series of conference presentations, workshops, journal articles,
and personal contacts, we have generated a strong level of interest
in the project. A paper describing the model was chosen best at
the convention of the Southeastern Association for Community College
Research and later presented in the distinguished paper session
at the American Educational Research Association. Following a workshop
at the Association for Institutional Research 38th Annual Forum,
colleges in Oregon and Utah adopted the methodology. We also presented
the model to groups of registrars and admissions professionals (a
paper presentation at the Southern Association of College Registrars
and Admissions Officers and the keynote address and a workshop at
the New York State Transfer Articulation Association meeting). Assessment
Update and the Journal of Community College Research and Practice
published articles featuring the methodology and its advantages
over traditional approaches. In Virginia, the State Council of Higher
Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and the Virginia Community College
System (VCCS) have agreed to coordinate and maintain a statewide
reporting system and the State Committee on Transfer (SCT) has endorsed
it as the model for evaluating transfer. Nationally, we have a group
of colleges eager to adopt the methodology. In partnership with
the League for Innovation in the Community College, we will be approaching
foundations about the possibility of supporting a national dissemination.
If you are interested in more information or would like to be included
in our dissemination efforts, contact:
Senior Institutional Researcher
Thomas Nelson Community College
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and possible causes. In L.S. Zwerling (Ed.), The community college
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Clowes, D. A., & Levin, B. H. (1989). Community, technical,
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